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Superintendent Releases Construction Priorities

Fall bond referendum will provide funds for renovating Yorktown High School, if approved by voters.

Arlington Schools Superintendent Robert Smith proposed a $285.2 million, six-year Capital Improvement Plan last week that focuses on upgrading Yorktown and Wakefield High Schools in a time of skyrocketing construction costs and declining enrollment.

SMITH ALSO recommended that the school system bring forward a $78.32 million bond referendum package to voters this November, which would include funding to reconstruct Yorktown and the Walter Reed School and money to design new sites for the High School Continuation program and the Career Center.

While the School Board needs to approve the CIP by June, Smith said that his proposal was a jumping-off point and that the five board members may decide to allocate funding to other projects, such as Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

"These represent the choices that need to be made, but the choices could go in a different direction than what I am describing here," Smith said during the May 4 board meeting.

Most of the money for the new construction will come from a series of bond referendums, which Arlington voters have supported every two years since the first CIP in 1988. More than $15 million in revenue will also be available to spend on projects in fiscal year 2007, with the bulk of that going toward the new Washington-Lee High School.

The school system is in the midst of a major bout of construction, having renovated or expanded 10 schools in recent years and rebuilt Kenmore Middle School.

Soaring construction costs have made both the school system and the county reconsider the scope of several ambitious projects.

A dramatic increase in the price of steel began in 2004, due to new demand from developing markets like China and India, and the cost of other construction materials soon followed.

Local construction prices jumped by more than 15 percent in 2004, 11 percent last year and an estimated 7.5 percent this year, according to CIP planning documents.

The hike in construction prices "is a major concern," School Board Chair Dave Foster said. "It makes us prioritize, threatens to delay some projects and eats up a bigger percentage of the operating funds, deflecting money from day to day priorities."

THIS HAS led to higher debt levels that are approaching the county’s guidelines of restricting debt service to 10 percent of the operating budget.

"We are bumping against these ratios the county has laid out to ensure we keep a triple-AAA rating from the bond houses," School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes said. "We don’t have unlimited money."

Another challenge the board faces is a declining student population, which has now shrunk for five straight years, with the trend unlikely to reverse anytime soon. Lower enrollment means the schools will get a smaller percentage of revenue from the county, further compounding the hurdles caused by higher construction costs.

With fewer students attending Arlington schools, it is imperative that the community has greater access to the facilities, said School Board member Ed Fendley. He would like to ensure that "the way we invest in our buildings allows us to change them over the years to adapt to changing enrollment" and community needs.

The most controversial aspect of Smith’s CIP recommendations was his decision to allocate more than $66.8 million for renovations to Wakefield but not set aside a significant amount of money for a reconfiguration of Thomas Jefferson, which a team of consultants determined was in greater need of enhancement.

"We truly believe that it would not be appropriate to put Jefferson before Wakefield, and we don’t think we can do both at the same time," Smith said.

Jefferson’s building systems need to be replaced, the middle school space should be reconfigured and more daylight could be introduced into the academic portions of the facility, a school staff study found.

Considering these needs, Foster was "surprised" that more funding is not being dedicated to Jefferson improvements.

"I have some serious questions about the [CIP’s] priorities," he said. "Jefferson virtually disappears from the CIP even though it was ranked as a higher priority by the consultants."

Following the completion last year of 31 new classrooms to Yorktown, the superintendent would like to renovate the remaining portion of the school. The $94 million project will occur in phases, with students remaining on-site and using trailers as classrooms.

"YORKTOWN IS beginning to fail," Hynes said. "The maintenance guys are working on it all the time."

School Board members must decide what to do with the High School Continuation program, which will be relocated from the Arlington Mill Community Center. School officials are recommending the program be placed in the same facility as the career center, which currently shares a building with the Columbia Pike Library.

Combining the two programs should save the county money and make life easier for students who use both services, school officials said.

"It means that if a kid came to high school continuation and wanted to pursue a trade, he could just walk next door or down stairs to take a class," Hynes added.